Why are there Illegal Cars in the USA?
The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the governing body in the United States responsible for determining what defines a vehicle as being “safe.” Safe for its passengers, safe for other drivers on the road, safe for the environment, and safe for the economy. In protecting all of those assets of American life, there’s a lot of legislation created, and a lot of rules for manufacturers to follow. For those who simply can’t get their car fix in the American auto market, foreign markets offer a variety of vehicles, unlike Uncle Sam’s favorites. However, if you continue to live in the US but have an extreme affinity for importing cars that are illegal in the US, there are some forbidden fruits you may never be able to taste.
As a result, many vehicles created by foreign manufacturers need an American variant able to comply with all of the regulations put forth by the NHTSA, otherwise, it is deemed street illegal cars in the US. Of course, that becomes a large endeavor that many manufacturers aren’t necessarily willing to undertake, and as a result, there’s a significant number of vehicles that cannot be imported into this country.
There’s no question about the fact that the United States car market is missing some key European players. Whether due to lack of market interest, inability to comply with American safety regulations and emissions standards, or the simple inability to fund the import process, thousands of cars are produced every year that will never get the chance to burn rubber on Highway 52 or down US-1. So, what cars are illegal in the US? There are plenty of foreign cars that can't be driven ehre all over the world, and it can be for quite a few reasons under the umbrella of NHTSA standards, but once foreign cars are 25 years old, they can be brought to our shores. Even still, importing a foreign car, like importing any good, requires you to complete quite a bit of paperwork for it to go through Customs to be allowed on our roads. It can be quite the involved process, but if you're passionate enough about cars illegal in the US, it might be worth the effort.
This list can change as the years pass, so be sure to check with the DMV or NHTSA regarding the legality of certain cars coming to the United States. You never know, maybe that car you have your eye on is now legal to drive on the streets of the U.S.
What Cars are Illegal in the US?
1990 BMW M3 Sport Evolution III
With only 600 ever made, the third M3 Sport Evolution featured a 2.5 L engine designed to compete against Audi’s v8. With the creation of the M3 line, BMW designed a new 4-cylinder engine to replace the 6 cylinder being used in the E30, which was too long to fit inside a car designed for every-day use. The stock engine created an easy 200 bhp, with the competition-spec engine putting out 300 bhp at 8,000 rpm. Though listed as one of the NHTSA’s cars banned in the USA under Show and Display regulations, this should be exempt from the restrictions after 2015.
1993 Jaguar XJ220-S
The Jaguar XJ220-S only had 6 examples that were produced, but that was enough for the NHTSA to ban them from the United States. The S model was designed to be a street-legal version of the XJ220-C racer. The hidden headlights of the XJ220 were removed in the S model, as well as the base model's leather trimming. The car's engine was tuned to produce a neck-breaking 690 hp.
1993 Lamborghini Strosek Diablo
Designer Vittorio Strosek took the famous Lamborghini Diablo and modified its body, thinking it was too subtle. Modifications included the replacement of the front and rear bumper with much rounder versions, replaced headlights and turn signals, side mirrors that were placed high up on the doors, and much more.
1996-2001 Lotus Elise S1 and the 2000 340R
Despite an output of only 118 bhp, the Lotus Elise S1 was able to accelerate from 0 to 60 in 5.8 seconds due to its 1,600 lb weight. Capable of speeds up to 150 mph, the Elise was named after Elisa, the granddaughter of the company chairman at the time of release, Romano Aritoli. The 340R was released as a new Lotus limited edition model of the Elise, with only 340 ever produced. The name 340R originally referred to the power-weight ratio of the prototype, which churned out 177 bhp at a weight of 1,100 lbs. It later came to refer to the number produced when the final production found the car at a weight of 1,550 lbs.
2002 Morgan Le Mans ’62 Prototype
In 2002, Morgan created 80 limited edition anniversary models of the 1962 Le Mans, as well as one prototype. Each came with its number engraved on both the steering wheel and on a plaque in the console, with the prototype detailed as car “00.” Once the line was launched, all 80 vehicles were allocated to owners within 72 hours. The cars are as accurate as possible to the original model, including the installation of only one door handle, on the driver’s side.
When discussing foreign cars that are illegal in the US, one of the most frequently used terms is "JDM." What that term means is "Japanese Domestic Market," meaning that the cars were built in Japan and made for Japanese drivers. Perhaps the most desired cars to import are JDM cars. In recent years, JDM cars have been at the center of movies, video games, and all kinds of other popular media that you may have seen, which has made their popularity grow immensely. For many, these foreign cars are known for their unique approach to performance, whether it be for drifting, their innovative drivetrains, or simply a cult following that the car has amassed. However, you might be thinking, "Why are JDM cars illegal?" If you are wondering why Japanese cars are illegal in the U.S., it comes down to construction. Due to Japanese drivers using the left-hand side of the road, and having cars that are right-hand drive, they are illegal street cars to drive on this side of the Pacific, as we Americans drive on the right-hand side of the road and use left-hand drive cars. Without spending a small fortune, almost all 1997 or newer JDM cars are illegal in the U.S. Owning or driving illegal JDM cars is asking for more punishment than drug possession or automatic weapons. Maybe one day the government will have its priorities in order...
1999 Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R V-spec
Rival to the Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7, the Nissan R34 GT-R V-spec boasted some of the most advanced technology that a 1999 car could, which makes it one of the most popular cars in the world, let alone one of the most popular cars people wish to import from the Japanese Domestic Market. It was one of the first to introduce a display screen on the dashboard that listed various statistics about the engine and car during operation, including a reading of the amount of G-forces the car was experiencing. The driver’s seat had a computer jack hidden under its seat skirt to enable uploading information from the car’s system to a laptop for analysis. A quick search around the internet instantly shows the Nissan Skyline to be the most hotly requested model of the NHSTA’s banned cars in America list. Other banned Skylines are the 1995 GTS-T, R32 GT-R’s built between 1989 and 1994, the 1995 R33 GT-R, 1995 and 1996 R33 GT-R V-spec’s, the 1994 R34, the 1999 R34 GT-T, and the 2001 R34 25GT-T.
Importing a car to the U.S. is one task, but the Golden State presents hurdles for even American cars. The California Air Resources Board has pollution laws that are far more strict than the other 49 states. Therefore, achieving a CARB exemption is needed, even for domestic cars. Those who move to California and want to skirt this rule often keep their cars registered in another state, however, this practice is not legal.
Make: Alfa Romeo
Model: 8C Spider
Make: Aston Martin
Model: Virage Volante
The Lone Star State was the only nation annexed by the U.S. Exotic and luxury cars are a part of life, but trucks reign supreme. A big part of the world's poultry is also produced there, so a native Texan stood up for his state. When France and Germany imposed a tariff on American chicken, President Johnson placed a heavy tax on small trucks that were imported into the United States. While this has protected domestic small trucks, it also prompted Mercedes-Benz to open a new Sprinter factory in South Carolina. Small utility vehicles coming into the U.S. have to be car-based or face a tax of 25%. Texas is also the center of new truck releases, and the media flocks to the Texas State Fair every year to see the new models.
Model: 962 RLR
Model: 964 RS
Model: Sagaris, T350, Tuscan, Cerbera
Other cars that are ineligible for import, as outlined by the NHTSA’s May 28, 2013 list, for show and display are listed here, alphabetized by make:
Check out the full list of cars rejected for Show and Display here (organized alphabetically by manufacturer):
|Alfa Romeo||8C Spider Roadster||2010|
|Aston Martin||Virage Volante||1993|
|Beijing Auto. Ind. Holding||Rodedawg||2005|
|BMW||M3 Sport Evolution III||1990|
|Honda||Beat||1991 – 1996|
|Jaguar||XJ 220 S (race car)||1993|
|Land Rover||Defender 130||2000 – 2001|
|Lotus||Elise S1||1996 – 2001|
|Mitsubishi||Lancer Evolution Tommi Makinen Edition RD- RHD||2000|
|Morgan||LeMans ’62 Prototype||2002|
|Nissan||Figaro||1990 – 1991|
|Nissan||Skyline GT-R Autech Version 40th Anniversary Edition||1998|
|Nissan||Skyline R32 GT-R||1989 – 1994|
|Nissan||Skyline R33 GT-R||1995|
|Nissan||Skyline R33 GT-R V-Spec||1995-1996|
|Nissan||Skyline R34 GT-R V-Spec||1999|
|Nissan||Skyline R34 GT-T||1999|
|Nissan||Skyline R34 25GT-T||2001|
|Porsche||959 S (race car)||1989|
|Porsche||Carrera 4 Lightweight (race car)||1990|
|Rover||Mini Cooper||1995, 1998 – 2000|
|Rover||Mini Cooper RSP / LE||1990|
|Skoda||Fabia Greenline II||2012|
|Toyota||HDJ81 Land Cruiser||1990|
|TVR||Sagaris, T350, Tuscan, Cerbera||1996-2006|
|Volkswagen||Beetle (Old Style)||2000|
|Volkswagen||Beetle (Ultimate Edition)||2003|
|Volkswagen||Beetle (Ultima Edition)||2004|
|Volkswagen||Corrado Magnum Sport Kombi||1990|
For fans and collectors with adequate time and money, there are ways around this. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) states that if a car is not being imported by a business entity, that is, if a private citizen plans the import, there are certain stipulations that must be met. These vehicles can be imported for show and display, provided they meet the following requirements:
- No other vehicle of the same make, model, and model year was manufactured and/or certified for sale in the United States.
- No other vehicle of the same make, model, and model year has been determined eligible for importation under 49 CFR Part 593, which pertains to the importation of vehicles by business entities.
- The vehicle is not currently in production.
- Less than 500 of the vehicles were produced, unless it is proven to the NHTSA that the vehicle is of extreme technological and/or historical importance
- The vehicle was not created as a kit car, replica, or special construction vehicle.
Of course, there are plenty of cars that do not meet those requirements. But the NHTSA has done applicants a favor and crafted a list of cars that are definitely not approved for import. However, there is a clause stating that cars over 25 years old are exempt from show and display regulations, meaning many of these could be pulled off the list rather soon.
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